Q&A with Northwest Marine Trade Association president and CEO George Harris

George Harris and his wife make boating with their two daughters, ages 17 and 12, a priority despite their busy schedules.
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George Harris

George Harris

George Harris and his wife make boating with their two daughters, ages 17 and 12, a priority despite their busy schedules. The president and CEO of the Northwest Marine Trade Association says the family spends weekends salmon fishing or shrimping from their 24-foot Sea Sport, which was built in Bellingham, Wash. “In my opinion, it is the perfect Puget Sound boat,” Harris says.

In 16-plus years with the industry’s oldest trade association, he has effected many changes — some of them surprising, such as getting the boatyard industry in Washington state to voluntarily stop using bottom paints containing copper and keeping the Seattle Boat Show from shrinking through the depths of the Great Recession.

We asked Harris about some of the association’s accomplishments and where it is headed from here. The first thing he talks about is the weekend he just spent collecting Puget Sound spot prawns.

Q: So, with your family’s busy lives (including one daughter now checking out colleges), how do you find time to spend a whole weekend on a boat?

A: I think one of the challenges of boating is the really high-density schedules that families like ours have with school and sports and family and traffic. Both of our girls are involved in high school and sports. My wife actually coaches two girls’ soccer teams. But we make [boating] a priority; we fit it in between the soccer tournaments, and school events and things like that. We make it a priority, and the trick is, how do you get other families to do that?

Our association has a mission statement, and it’s essentially to grow boating. That’s kind of the name of the game in here. There’s lots of different ways you can do that. Probably the best-known way for our association is the Seattle Boat Show.

Q: I understand that show is quite strong. Can you talk to us about boating, in general, in your corner of the country?

A: Per capita, we are 19th for boat ownership in the country. We don’t have the population density that you have in the Northeast. But if you look at what we do over index for expenditures — if we’re 19th per capita, we jump up to about No. 9 for expenditures, and that’s because we have year-round boating here, year-round saltwater fishing, and our boats tend to be a little larger, on average. Prior to the recession, 96 percent of boats registered in the country were on trailers, which means 26 feet or smaller. Here in Washington, 92 percent of the fleet was 26 feet or smaller. With our access to Canada and southeast Alaska, the large boats are kept in the water year-round. So we may not have the units that you have up in the Northeast, but we certainly have the expenditures and the use. And maybe that is going to change with the way western Washington is growing right now. Seattle is one of the fastest-growing cities in the country.

The Seattle Boat Show is the West Coast’s largest, featuring more than 1,000 models.

The Seattle Boat Show is the West Coast’s largest, featuring more than 1,000 models.

Q: A lot of marine trade associations have really different memberships — some are made up mostly of boatyards, others of dealers. In a state such as Washington, which has a strong boatbuilding presence, who are your members?

A: That’s a great question. We are the largest regional marine trade association in the country. We have over 700 members — we finished the fiscal year with 720. I like to say if you are a business involved in recreational boating that does business in the Northwest or wants to do business in the Northwest, either you are or you should be a member of the Northwest Marine Trade Association. For let’s just say the first 50 years of our association, it was really about the Seattle Boat Show, and you needed to be a member to get space. Then around 1999, that’s when our association really rounded itself out for all of the businesses — boatyards, marinas, manufacturers, distributors, insurance companies, you name it.

Prior to ’99, there was this idea that the recreational boating industry orbited around boat dealers. Then a few years ago Thom Dammrich, president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association, started using the phrase that the boating industry is an ecosystem. We’re all dependent on each other. You can’t have a yacht broker without having a boatyard, and you can’t have a robust large yacht dealer segment without marinas with available moorage, etc.

I remember when I was in sales of combo water skis in the early ’90s, and there used to be this conversation that inevitably happened at boat shows — is the boat show for manufacturers or is it for dealers? And that still comes up every now and then at our show. Different associations take a little different approach. The NMMA sells space to manufacturers, whereas the Houston Boat Show sells space to dealers. So you get this sort of mindset: manufacturer or dealer. Sometimes there can be tension. But the way we say it out here is, we’re a member show. So we have manufacturers that buy space, like Hinckley and Grady-White. And we have dealers that buy space, like the Grady-White dealer or the Sea Ray dealer or the Beneteau dealer, but then again, Beneteau also buys space. And we’re selling space to marinas and boatyards.

Harris shows off a steelhead pulled from the Dean River in British Columbia.

Harris shows off a steelhead pulled from the Dean River in British Columbia.

Q: This association has a long history. Can you talk a little bit about that and your time with the organization?

A: I’m really proud of what we do here. Long, long history. It’s a parade that’s been going on for 69 years, and at the moment I guess I get to be at the front of the parade. There will be a time when I move on and someone else will lead it. I’ve been here 16 years. From June 1999 to June 2009, I was vice president and boat show director. The Seattle Boat Show is a big show with a small staff, so it requires constant, year-round attention. We also do some smaller regional boat shows and events. We’ve experimented with lots of different things over the years. So I did that for 10 years, and in 2009 the board hired me to become the new president and CEO. I’m just finishing six years as CEO.

Q: How have you seen things evolve in your time there?

A: From 1999 to 2008, I saw just incredible growth at the Seattle Boat Show and in sales at the show.

Our show is at CenturyLink Field and Event Center. The building’s just not big enough. It’s not like convention centers around the country where you can just rent another 200,000 square feet of space. It’s a finite building. As a result, the show’s very dense. We don’t have any more space, so there’s a lot of time spent on how to fairly allocate that space. Back in 2008 we were probably short at least 100,000 to 150,000 square feet. We had businesses at that time giving us cash deposits for 100,000 square feet that we couldn’t rent. We were putting probably 40 or 50 large boats that ranged from 40 to 70 feet indoors. Big boats. And it was really a spectacle to see. I think the largest boat we ever had indoors, and I’m calling it the largest boat indoors west of the Mississippi, was a 70-foot Marquis that came in three pieces from a factory in Wisconsin. We had to assemble it out on the street, and it was so big we couldn’t take it off the trailer. I think from the keel to the top of the radar — or whatever was on top — was almost 28 feet. And the clearance to the building was 28 feet, so it just barely slid in. We expanded the show as best we could. At CenturyLink Field, where the Seahawks play, we had converted one level of the parking garage into about 90,000 square feet of usable space. We were using every nook and cranny of that stadium.

New-boat sales in Washington from 2003 through 2007 were right up around 10,000 units a year. Then we went into the Great Recession of 2009-2010, and it felt like we were in absolute free-fall. And that’s when I took over as president. I try to remember what that feeling was like — just total free-fall. None of us knew where the bottom was.

There was talk of depression, hyperinflation, bread lines; it was frightening. There were a little over 60 major businesses here in the region that went out of business. Manufacturers, dealers, brokers, marinas, boatyards — 60 major employers that went out of business. So if our high-water mark for new-boat sales in Washington was a little over 10,000, our low-water mark was in 2011, with only 3,050 new boats sold. Unit sales were cut 60, 70 percent. I’m pleased to report, though, that things are coming back fantastic. In 2012 new-boat sales were up 9 percent. In 2013 new-boat sales were up 12 percent in Washington. In 2014 new-boat sales were up 24 percent in units. And after six months [of 2015] new-boat sales are up 52 percent.

The Northwest Marine Trade Association recently purchased the Northwest Paddling Festival with an eye toward leveraging paddle sports to draw younger people into boating.

The Northwest Marine Trade Association recently purchased the Northwest Paddling Festival with an eye toward leveraging paddle sports to draw younger people into boating.

Q: Wow. That certainly beats the national average. How did things turn around? And what are people buying?

A: During the recession one of the things that crossed my mind was, will people need a boat show? Are people ever going to buy boats again? Are gas prices ever going to come down? It was really scary.

We have a staff of 10 right now, and maybe during the recession it went down to a staff of eight, but it’s the Seattle Boat Show that allows us to do all the other things we do here. We needed to sell space at the boat show. It would be as if Nordstrom closed the top two floors of its flagship store here in Seattle. Nobody wants to walk into the flagship store and see two of the six floors closed. That didn’t happen. But the point is, that’s just something you don’t want to do to your brand. A lot of retailers were closing stores and cutting back. Of all the consumer shows and events at CenturyLink Stadium, we were the only one that didn’t get smaller. The auto show got smaller, the home show got smaller, the RV show got smaller. They all got smaller. You know what we did in 2010 — and I knew it was an important segment, but it really surprised me — is recreational fishing for salmon; those businesses stepped up and bought the space where the large yachts used to be.

We were fortunate that about the same time the economy was crashing, our recreational salmon fishing here was getting better — much better. Thanks to our efforts and other sportfishing advocacy groups, we were getting better seasons, better policies, good ocean conditions, so salmon would come back to Puget Sound. We had good snowpack in the mountains, so that meant they could get up the rivers, spawn and get out the following spring. For the past 10 years we’ve just been on a tear for salmon fishing in the Northwest. And you can see it in the boat sales data.

A: little over half of the new boats sold have been aluminum boats. There are aluminum boats that get used for other activities, but I’m going to say 95 percent of them around here are used for fishing. It really hit home for me, and our board, how really important recreational fishing is to our industry, and to me. That’s what I do the most. I probably fish 80 or 90 days a year.

Q: How did you work with agencies to help influence policy and decisions regarding seasons?

A: First of all, it’s hard to imagine something more complex than fishing policy, particularly salmon policy because it involves Washington state, northern California, British Columbia, Alaska, and then also involves at a federal level the United States and Canada. You’ve got all these entities trying to manage these salmon stocks. And then here in Washington you’ve got something from 40 years ago called the Boldt Decision, which says that indigenous people, the tribes, are entitled to 50 percent of the harvest. The citizens of Washington state are co-managers with the tribes here in Washington.

The Coastal Conservation Association, the Northwest Sportfishing Association, the Northwest Marine Trade Association and a group we started called Fish Northwest — those four entities are the ones that pay for two sport-fishing lobbyists here in Washington. What really changed over the last 10 years was that all of the four entities are totally coordinated on our priorities. We’ve been able to lobby the legislature, the governor’s office and the fish and wildlife commission about the economic value of recreational fishing — which is exactly what’s being done at a federal level with Magnuson-Stevens. We were able to do it at a state level, and it’s really hard. We were able to increase the days that guys like me can go salmon fishing, and the number of days guys like me can go shrimping.

Harris fishes at local derbies with daughters Jackie (left) and Bailey.

Harris fishes at local derbies with daughters Jackie (left) and Bailey.

Q: What are some other issues that you’ve addressed at the association? I know the marine industry in Washington has taken a very different approach to using copper paint.

A: In 2009 we had what I’ll call a boatyard crisis. At that time there were 92 boatyards in Washington. An environmental activist group decided to sue five of the 92 for violating the Clean Water Act.

My first question was, were these five the worst offenders? Because if they were, maybe they deserved what they got. But if you stand them all up on a list from best to worst in terms of copper discharge, it was sort of random. It wasn’t like they chose the worst violators.

So we decided to really roll up our sleeves and get involved. We’re famous for our environment here, and rightly so. We love clean water. Our stand all along was we need tough regulations to protect waterways, but it needs to be fair. We’ve already got the toughest boatyard permit in the United States.

We collaborated with an environmental activist group on a study of water treatment systems. NMTA put in money, the group put in some money and we installed three systems in three different boatyards. We found that one called passive filtration was actually very effective and reasonably affordable, and we started recommending it to our boatyards.

But then in 2009, the permit had to renew again, and that’s when these intent-to-sue letters went out. The passive filtration [system] could get the numbers down to 50 parts per billion, so that’s where we wanted the new permit to be. The activist group says no, no, no, we want it to be three parts per billion. We said, wait, you just helped us prove the best these filtration systems can get to is 50. They insisted.

After the intent-to-sue letters went out, we went from 92 to 76 boatyards because they just said the heck with it, I don’t want to be in the boatyard business. We were losing our yards because of all the uncertainty around this. Our strategy toward the environmental activist group was: Accept 50 parts per billion, which is tough, but fair. It’s better than 77. If our boatyards invest in these passive filtration systems, they can get to 50. If you accept that, we will phase out copper bottom paint by 2020 — first place in the country to do it — and we will start a Certified Clean Boatyard Program.

So by 2018, all new boats commissioned for the first time need to have non-copper paint, and by 2020 all boats 65 feet and smaller need to use non-copper paint. I’ve been using non-copper paint on my boat since 2009 and I’m very happy with it. The paint I use, where echinea is the primary biocide, I will say, the echinea paints are absolutely fantastic on hard growth like mussels and barnacles. Better than copper. The trouble is for soft growth, slime and grass, particularly where there is direct sunlight. That’s what we’ve got to work on. You can mitigate that to some extent by putting some zinc in with your echinea.

What’s interesting is, it’s really measurable. Between 2006 and 2009, the four-year average of copper output was 462 parts per billion. Since we started our Certified Clean Boatyard Program, between 2010 and 2013, the number is 179 parts per billion. The average in 2013 was 92 parts per billion, which meets water quality standards. So I think it’s crystal clear that what we’ve done is working. We’ve got numbers to support it.

Q: What are you looking to work on in the coming months and years?

A: Washington state has really got tough tax policies. We don’t have an income tax. We have something called the business and occupation tax — B&O tax. Right now, our No. 1 long-term legislative priority would be to get a sales tax cap like they’ve done in Florida and some other states. But to get there, we’ve had to have what we’ve called our No. 1 short-term priority, where we update our cruising permit.

Right now, if you, Reagan, had a privately owned Grand Banks that you kept in California and you wanted to come to Puget Sound on your way to southeast Alaska, you could come in tax-free for 180 days. So you could bring the Grand Banks in here, have some engine work done on it, new upholstery and bottom paint before your big trip to Alaska. If you and I own that Grand Banks together, and it was owned by an entity, like an LLC, that boat could only come to Puget Sound for 60 days. And on the 61st day, basically there would be a 10 percent tax on the value of the boat. Because most boats 40, 50, 60 feet and above are entity-owned, those boats don’t come to Washington. They are filling the marinas in British Columbia, where they can be tax-free for 364 days. We’ve been working on what we call our marine tourism bill for four years so that everything entity-owned — from a Grand Banks to a Westport to a Christensen —can spend 180 days in Washington tax-free, and after four years we got it done this year. Gov. Jay Inslee signed that on July 2, and we’re really excited. Now we’ll start collecting some data to prove to the legislature, and the governor’s office and his staff, that this is not a tax loophole for wealthy boat owners, but instead something that’s going to create jobs and revenue for the state. Hopefully that will be a success story, just like bottom paint.

Q: So how do the NMTA and other trade associations fit into the larger picture and some of the larger-scale advocacy work?

A: I am a big, big fan of the Recreational Boating Leadership Council and the work it has done. That process was facilitated by the NMMA, which brought in 180 or 190 recreational boating leaders from all segments. Everyone was in the room. And from that, six priorities for the industry emerged: marketing, new markets, education, affordability, young people, advocacy. I carry those six things around all the time and think of them as our strategic plan for our marine trade association. Everything we do here should check against one of those six priorities. I think the MTAs are really where the rubber hits the road. We’re the ones probably in contact with the member businesses and the boaters every day.

Q: How is the NMTA trying to grow boating?

A: We recently purchased the Northwest Paddling Festival. As we think about how we are going to replenish boomers as they age out of boating, right now we’re thinking our best shot is paddle sports, stand-up paddleboards and kayaking. Seattle is growing denser. Boat ownership is going to be harder in this big city, and we think paddling is something we need to look into. We’ve run the Northwest Paddling Festival for two years in a row. We have close to 400 boards and boats on a lake in the foothills of the Cascades, and for two days, people can come out and demo them. This past year was an absolute home run. You look at pictures of that event, those are the new market; those are the people we want. Can you get five of every 100 into boating? That would be good. That’s what we hope.

We run an annual boatyard and marina conference in the fall. That’s been really successful. About 150 businesses come to that.

We do an economic impact study every few years. We know it’s a little over a $4 billion industry, 28,000 jobs in the state because of recreational boating. We like things we can measure, like the paddling festival. We’ve also been running a series of salmon fishing tournaments called the Northwest Salmon Derby. We’ve been doing that for 11 years as a way to measure and promote recreational fishing. We have 14 different tournaments. It’s kind of like the PGA tournament for salmon fishing. The grand prize is a boat, motor, trailer and electronics package worth around $65,000 that we put together.

With 69 years, I just feel so fortunate and blessed to be able to — I know it’s kind of trite — but to be able to stand on the shoulders of all the people before me. We have a great board, a really engaged membership, really passionate volunteers. Basically we just do a little more, a little bit more, one layer at a time. A great history, a great organization.

This article originally appeared in the September 2015 issue.

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